Magnolia Blossoms

The historical journey of Magnolia Avenue from the 1920s to the thriving community of today.

| by Jocelyn Tatum | photography by Alex Lepe | The neighborhood isn’t as affluent as other parts of town, but it has a thriving self-sustaining, middle-class charm. From the 600-block looking west, the street is lined with cars, booming drug stores, a dance club on the left, a Safeway grocery on the right, a dry cleaners, a barber shop, a photography business and the local movie theater beyond that. Just about everything someone needs is on the street. Women in their black baby-doll shoes, mid-calf length satin dresses and men in their business suits and fine hats bustle in and out of the Southside Bar & Lounge or Tivoli Theater.

It is 1951 on Magnolia Avenue, and it is only a matter of years before this sunny scene turns grim. The sophisticated streetcar that assisted Magnolia’s rapid development and ran downtown from Main Street, south to Magnolia, west to Henderson and north to Daggett, had already stopped running in 1936, and the last tracks were pulled in 1938 due to the affordability of cars.

At the turn of the 20th century, “The city experienced an economic boom in the ensuing decade. The Southside received a tremendous influx of population,” according to the Tarrant County Historic Resources Survey (TCHRS) of Fort Worth’s Southside.

Homes platted 20 years before the streetcar lines were set in 1906 were finally being sold, purchased and even more built. This rapid development in the Southside allowed for developer John C. Ryan to lay out the plans for Ryan Place in 1911, which quickly became one of Fort Worth’s first affluent neighborhoods.

“Ryan Place was unprecedented in its scale and sophistication,” according to the TCHRS.

This can be seen today in the preservation of the stunning Gatsby-style homes along Elizabeth Boulevard – named for Elizabeth Ryan – off Eighth Avenue.

The Walls Start Crumbling Down This boom only lasted into the 1960s. A number of factors led to what was called the “urban” flight, which left this charming inner city to decay.

The desegregation of public schools paved the way to Fort Worth’s first private schools. New development further south and to the west enticed residents with new mid-century modern, ranch-style homes with contraptions like built-in intercom systems.

Then the convention center was built in 1968 to clean up Fort Worth’s problem area downtown known as Hell’s Half Acre. A few years later, the Amon Carter Foundation gifted the Water Gardens, which furthered the initiative to redevelop and clean up downtown.

“The old Hell’s Half Acre was a bunch of cheap hotels, flop houses and bars, and then they wanted to tear it down and rebuild and put the convention center in the 1960s there,” local historian Carol Roark said.

However, that dirty laundry moved south to Magnolia. By the 1970s and 80s, the shops were either abandoned or filled with seedy lounges and other questionable stores. Nobody felt safe, and the nearby hospitals were not thrilled about the increase in petty theft. The residential began to deteriorate as well.

“The smaller bungalows in Fairmount became rental properties and turned over…people didn’t update them,” Roark said.

But things started to turn around. In a miraculous concatenation of efforts from the hospitals, the local businesses and a few passionate native neighborhood residents, Magnolia started to “blossom.”

Nostalgic Southside Native Looks Back, Then Forward Born in 1951, David Motheral remembers the 10-cent hamburgers at the Griddle System next door to the Tivoli Theater where he would watch children’s shows. His grandmother had her own shop called Mrs. McBride’s Tot to Teen Shop on the corner of Henderson and Magnolia. Sometimes he would run next door to B. Max Mehl’s, a world-renowned coin dealer and collector, to see his precious coin collection. He built coin collections for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Amon Carter and even royal families. Mehl, whose name is still displayed on the building today, would let Motheral, as a little boy, into his sacred safe to see some of the world’s most valuable coins. 

It made Motheral sick to watch that street deteriorate over the years. As a young and ambitious 29-year-old in the early 1980s, he and a new business partner, Rusty Haws, decided they would purchase one of the dilapidated buildings, renovate it and rent it out to a local business in hopes to start a movement.

“It was the perfect size for a small office space, retail and maybe even a fun restaurant…the asking price was very reasonable for a viable rehab at realistic rental rates,” Motheral said.

He and his business partner were confident they would get the loan, but didn’t see this coming.

“I got an immediate ‘no.’ I tried to sell him on the idea and even mentioned the benefit the bank would get from an upgraded building facing his property on Magnolia. I was told the building could not be rehabilitated and would not be economically viable located on Magnolia,” Motheral said.

“If a bank on Magnolia wasn’t going to give him and his reputable partner a loan, then who was?” they thought. So Motheral and Haws gave up.

At a recent banquet celebrating the organization of Fort Worth South, Inc.’s 20th anniversary, Motheral joked that most of the buildings had “involuntary skylights.” Violence and vagrants reigned. While neighbors watched out for each other’s homes, security among the hospitals was divided to individual campuses. The commercial areas along Magnolia were unsafe.

Three weeks after he was declined a business loan, Motheral got a call from Andy Jenkins at Central Bank and Trust. He asked if Motheral could meet him at his office at noon that Friday. Motheral said, if he wasn’t going to loan him the money, why should he waste his time? Jenkins then gruffly told him he needed to be in his office, and he would find out then.

“I was right on time that Friday when the secretary motioned me to go right in. I saw Mayor Bob Bolen sitting across from Mr. Jenkins. I had no idea what was going on,” he said.

Thud. The Mayor plopped a 2-inch thick book on the desk in front of Motheral. It read: “Medical District Redevelopment Plan.”

“I was really confused as to why I was there,” Motheral said.

The mayor had a huge problem, and he needed Motheral to help fix it. Magnolia and the surrounding neighborhood known as Fairmount had become so distressed that the hospitals could no longer renew their certificates of operation from the state of Texas without proving they were contributing to the condition of their neighborhoods. One option was to move southwest, abandoning huge buildings and taking their lucrative economy with them. Some were already buying property elsewhere. It would look like some apocalyptic scene of deserted structures with overgrown plant life growing through cracks.

“Despite the neighborhood decline, the area had six acute care hospitals, nine nursing homes, 700 physician offices, numerous medical industry support activities…30,000 employees with a median income of over $38,000,” writes Joan Scott in Fort Worth’s Medical District: Past, Present and Future.

That is a large workforce considering only 40,000 worked in Fort Worth’s then newly revamped downtown area. (Remember, we are still in the 80s.)

The Mayor needed to save the Southside, and he had a plan. He had located $6 million available that was being funneled through government grant money. They needed a neighborhood association.

“So Mr. Mayor, what does that have to do with me? I can’t even get a loan to rehab the building across the street,” Motheral said.

Jenkins remembered an old neighborhood association called the Southside Businessmen’s Association that no longer had active members. It did have a bank account with $328 in it. Motheral was to reactivate and lead this group.

“Oh, you have the loan, with the provision you start the neighborhood organization and see this project through to its end,” Motheral said the Mayor said.

“But Mayor, I have no experience, no staff and no resources in a development of this size,” Motheral said.

One Southside Native Business Sticks It Out Mike Smith, owner of Paris Coffee Shop at 700 W. Magnolia Ave., remembers running up and down that same street in the early 1950s as a little boy. His father bought the diner from Victor Paris in 1926, and young Smith grew up inside cleaning okra, peeling apples and potatoes. Now 71 years old, he rarely misses a day of work.

As a boy, he would take a break and buy a plain “Rocky Burger” with thin meat and special sauce for 10 cents from The Griddle System. Like Motheral, he would skip next door to the Tivoli Theater and watch his favorite children’s series, Captain Video, or hop down to the Safeway grocery store for a snack.

Smith, known as the “Elvis” and “Mayor” of Magnolia Avenue, stayed through the decline. Working nearly every single day of his life in his diner, pushing some of the best pies in the country (according to the Food Network and Bon Appétit magazine), he remembers when the street was roaring and later crumbling.  

“My dad started to notice that things are changing and started to go south. You could tell things were deteriorating. It was rough at night…not safe,” Smith said.

His father died in 1971. Smith thought about moving several times to escape the mess but never could find a place he could afford.

“I kept waiting for something else to happen. I was waiting for this place to turn around,” Smith said.

First Redeveloper on Magnolia Gets the Green Light Mayor Bolen told Motheral he would provide him with a staff of 17 people from the city’s Planning Department at his “disposal” for the duration of the project. Motheral felt ambushed. He said he didn’t really have a choice, but then again, “how hard can it be?”

He became the spokesman for the group at city planning meetings. He got his loan and the building he wanted renovated. BJ Keefers moved in. Motheral put a sign out front the day he owned the building that said, “Make Magnolia Blossom.” Just a few years before that in 1981, Benito’s had opened its doors. Things were starting to move along. Promises were made to businesses that money used from tax increment financing (TIF) would clean up the curbs, sidewalks and streets.

That was until the recession in the 1980s finally trickled down to Texas. Everything stood still for about eight years. 

“All worked well until we ran out of money to complete the construction of the original promised section [on Magnolia],” Motheral said.

Motheral was distraught and thought, “How could you run out of money to construct public improvements in front of people’s buildings when they were already committed to spending their own money to upgrade their buildings?”

But they were out of money. Motheral asked his staff to keep that information private from the small businesses moving in until he met with the Mayor to explain his problem.

They met at Colonial Country Club the next morning, and Motheral made his plea. Bolen and city councilmember Herman Stute began whispering in a side discussion. The Mayor looked up and told Motheral he could have his $6 million, partially made possible because he would include it in the “bond election as part of the base.”

“Can we have breakfast now?” the Mayor said.

The Crash of the 1980s Is Over, Pulling Up the Boot Straps Once the country pulled itself out of the recession, Magnolia started to move forward again. In 1990 the Fairmount Neighborhood Association pulled together the aforementioned survey to place the area on the National Register of Historic Places. Then the neighborhood association and the city of Fort Worth Planning Department registered Fairmount and Magnolia to become a designated historic site locally. Roark said once a historic neighborhood, this allowed for a Historic Site Tax Exemption, which gave people financial incentives to remodel and even rebuild their homes. It froze their property value and taxes for 10 years.

“It made people look at this neighborhood in a different way…it gave people incentive to buy, renovate and move there,” Roark said.

Roark not only wrote (for the most part) the Southside Historic Resources Survey for the city, which is dedicated to her as a result, but she has lived in Fairmount since 1979 and watched the surge. Her home is now nearly nine times the value of what it was when they bought it.

“In the last five to eight years [Fairmount] hit a critical mass and boomed,” Roark said.

Joan Kline and Ryan Place Before Fairmount was designated historic, Joan Kline, 84, was making sure her childhood stomping grounds in Ryan Place were protected, thus paving the path for Magnolia’s success through the precedents she set.

Kline grew up all over the Southside and remembers the shops along Magnolia in the 1930s. Her favorite Easter dress came from Motheral’s grandmother’s shop, the aforementioned Mrs. McBride’s.

She first created a neighborhood organization after rallying her neighbors together on Elizabeth Boulevard, which she said was unusual and “radical” at that time. There was no such thing as historic zoning then, so she bypassed the city and went to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It was more fun being radical,” Kline said.

A woman of true grit, she was determined to make the area safe and beautiful again. When all nine of her children were nearly grown, she got her real estate license to start her own redevelopment projects and implement ideas she could not as a volunteer. So in 1981 when she saw Motheral’s sign “Make Magnolia Blossom,” she pulled over.

She had not met Motheral yet, but she loved everything about his new sign and quickly became the first member of the Southside Businessmen’s Association. Although, there was not a chance Kline would let them keep that name—she was not a businessman. She had it changed pretty quickly to Historic Southside Association, which later became Fort Worth South, Inc.

Despite their 20-year age difference, Motheral and Kline would become best friends, both attempting to save their beloved childhood neighborhoods and their family histories.

“Watching a building be restored is like watching a person who is frail regain vitality,” Kline said. “It was kind of like soul food for me.”

The Medical District It was a matter of months after the novice Historic Southside Association and its two members, Motheral and Kline, brought on Fort Worth Southside native, Dr. John Freese, 84. He was the last and most important piece in the puzzle to get the hospitals on board and reinvested in the Southside. Without the hospitals’ contribution, plans for redevelopment were uncertain. 

The idea was to have each hospital’s security system communicate with each other and combine efforts so it was a continuous area. As a well-respected surgeon, an active member in the Tarrant County and Texas Medical Society, Freese brought the merchants and the hospitals together to recreate what the Southside had once been.

“As a transplant outsider, I am fascinated by this part of the story. To me you’re explaining, as fragile as it was and as new as it was, the people and economic anchors of this community coming together,” the Fort Worth South, Inc.  President Paul Paine said in a meeting about the upcoming banquet. “That to me is the most critical piece for people to understand because that is how we began to gain momentum.”

Freese said the importance of getting that TIF money was key. 

“We were on a financial shoestring and dependent on the hospitals to support us until we were able to create the TIF,” he said.

The TIF gives what is now Fort Worth South, Inc.,  the financial stability to claim a management fee, which pays their employees’ salaries. Among many things, the group becomes matchmakers and the go-between of developers and the city to help pay for infrastructure that goes along with their development. 

Amy McNutt and James M. Johnston opened Spiral Diner 11 years ago and picked that building because they loved the neighborhood surrounding Magnolia Avenue.

It Takes a Village…and Time In early January 2015, Motheral, Kline and Freese all met at the Near Southside offices to bring their stories of early redevelopment to Mike Brennan, director of planning, and Paine, current president. They were preparing for the Fort Worth South, Inc.’s 20th anniversary banquet, Feb. 20. These three individuals lit that torch long before Southside, Inc. was even a “thing.” For nearly 35 years, they have actively tried to get Magnolia Avenue where it is today.

There wasn’t one thing that made this all happen, they each brought something to the table—Kline, the neighborhood associations and historic designations, Motheral, the development, and Freese, the hospitals. While they all played other roles too, their individual passions showed in their dedication.

In the last 10 years, Magnolia blossomed. And after fighting breast and colon cancer successfully, Kline got to see it materialize. Kline said her proudest moment was when she was recently eating in a restaurant on Magnolia and she noticed twinkling lights in the trees peeking through the window. She watched the people walking up and down the street. Her eyes twinkled, she smiled and looked up as she recounted this memory.

Longtime resident and historian Roark said in the last eight years she’s watched many new and young people move in, remodeling the old homes and planting new roots. “Two years ago today, my husband and I were at Ellerbe for Valentine’s Day and looked over and saw George P. Bush and his wife, and the Basses were there. We looked at each other and said, ‘Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore,’” she said.

The TIF helped developers pay for the sidewalks, streets and lights. It was Brennan’s idea to use this money and make the street three lanes with a center turn lane to organize traffic more efficiently. The TIF freezes property values. Any taxes from the increase in property value go back into redeveloping the area. David said the TIF account has an independent board, which doles out money for worthy projects.

“We can give a small, independently-owned business money to improve the public areas, curbs, gutters, street parking, trees, landscaping and wheelchair ramps,” Motheral said. 

However, these local merchants must follow guidelines, like the outside of their building will match the rest of the neighborhood’s antiquated feel.

After the eight-year financial drought that ensued through the rest of the 1980s was over, we started to see restaurants like King Tut, Spiral Diner, Ellerbe, Yucatan Taco Stand, and later, Shinjuku Station and Brewed fill the empty dilapidated buildings. Each locally owned with an intimate atmosphere and creative menus.

“People from the outside think they are an overnight success. They are seeing the momentum today, but it wasn’t an easy process,” Paine said.

One founder and the current owner of Spiral Diner also grew up in the Fairmount area, however cofounder Amy McNutt did not. They have been in that location for 11 years and picked that building because they loved the neighborhood. They had no idea it was all about to change so dramatically in their favor. Most would say this popular vegan restaurant set the trend for the other rare and modish businesses that followed suit.

“This was an area that was affordable for young people to live. Everything that is happening in this neighborhood was already in Fort Worth. We just allowed them to gravitate to one place,” co-owner (Amy’s husband) and award-winning filmmaker James M. Johnston said.

Kline would agree. She said it wasn’t the people her age deciding historic preservation was good—it was the younger people starting to show interest.

“The generation of the 80s and 90s grew up on synthetics and plastics. Now they crave something real and solid—something with roots,” Kline said.

Jarry Ho and Casey Kha invested in Shinjuku Station at the corner of Hemphill and Magnolia. After looking all over town, they knew their ideas would be appreciated on Magnolia Avenue.

The Best Path Isn’t Always the Easiest Owning a small business isn’t always easy on Magnolia. Jarry Ho and Casey Kha were terrified when they invested in Shinjuku Station at the corner of Hemphill and Magnolia. After looking all over town, they knew their ideas would be appreciated on Magnolia Avenue. Japanese tapas are still an innovative idea for Fort Worth, and although their restaurant is always packed, it is a tiny space. The money didn’t pour in at first. They are in it for the long-term investment.

They recently opened a traditional Chinese restaurant in a historic home purchased from Kline a block off South Main Street, which is the next phase of the Magnolia development plan. It is impeccably designed and as intimate as their other ventures.

In the near future, Fort Worth South, Inc. hopes to replace the streetcar that was ripped up in the 1930s. It will run from Magnolia Avenue to South Main Street and into downtown. Tree by tree and brick by brick, Magnolia will be in full bloom.